Armitage reacting

How firm is their partnership? Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne and Keith Allen as the Sheriff of Nottingham in a publicity photo for series 1 of Robin Hood. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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Here’s another favorite Richard Armitage performance of mine, this time from Robin Hood, series 1, episode 13.

“All acting is reacting” is a common actor’s maxim (is this Stanislavski speaking? Better informed people than I will know the answer). I suspect this notion lies at the basis of Richard Armitage’s conviction that he does best when he’s reacting to someone else in a scene (and his desire to avoid situations in which he’s not reacting to anyone present, although we have seen a brief one-man performance that was more than convincing). He’s an actor who gets an unusual amount of mileage from his reactions, and he mentioned more than once that the unpredictability of Keith Allen played a significant role in influencing those scenes:

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Now, witness the scene. The issues at stake are the apparent announced return of the king and the impending necessity for Marian to fulfill her promise to marry Guy, even as Robin and the gang are trying to prove that Guy was involved in an assassination attempt against Richard in the Holy Land and Marian is recovering from a wound received at Guy’s hand during her attempt to give the Nightwatchman one last ride. In the first scene of this episode, the only incriminating witness to Guy’s perfidy is killed in a skirmish between the gang and Gisborne’s men. When next we see Guy, he and the Sheriff are returning to Nottingham Castle afterwards. The death of the witness seems to have left the Sheriff in a good mood despite the apparent failures of Guy’s men.

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Now — of course — Armitage’s performance profits a lot here from both the lighting across his flat cheekbones, which repeatedly highlights his enervated surprise and then underlines its effect by making Guy’s skin look rough and the stubble uncultivated — and also from the way the scene is edited / cut, which highlights his reactions more than the Sheriff’s statements. However, as I’ve said in the past repeatedly, we can’t separate his body from his acting, as acting is an employment of the body — and the fact that the scene was edited together in this particular way is proof that his reactions are worth watching — as that is most of what the editor wants us to see here: Guy’s reactions. The sequence of reactions here reveals important pieces of Guy’s personality and character.

For me, key to this scene is Armitage’s apparent decision to avoid what might have been a tempting pitfall, and not make the main tone of the responses we witness from Guy in this scene the rage he must feel as opposed to the meta-emotion — fatigue in response to rage and betrayal. In choosing the latter, he leaves the escalation into rage free to the Sheriff — thus also characterizing Guy by drawing a key contrast to the Sheriff’s behavior. While we’ve seen Guy exhibit all kinds of negative emotion by this point in series 1, he’s also a more pragmatic seeker of ends than Vaizey seems to be. But rage is really hard to sustain over an entire minute like this (Allen doesn’t really manage it, in my opinion), whereas the fatigue and frustration and tension that Gisborne is displaying can be given many more subtle nuances.

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Enter stage left, with the henchman following, head down, his villainous master: Guy of Gisborne (Richard Armitage) and the Sheriff (Keith Allen) return to Nottingham Castle in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

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Guy’s initial statement, made walking into the room, seems almost a throwaway remark in that it’s obvious, but its naïveté provokes the Sheriff into an unexpected admission and several explosive declarations. The perspective the viewer takes on the information shared in the scene is thus constituted primarily from the standpoint of Guy’s reactions.

At 0:04, this reaction seems to be simple disbelief: “What?” expressed in a casual tone, as if he hasn’t quite heard what the Sheriff said — and the camera catches only a flash of a face that’s almost empty. But by 0:09, Armitage is adding energy to the scene, but by ending Guy’s earlier motion — as, in response to the Sheriff’s statement that the king is not coming, he stops, stock still, at 0:09. Indeed, at this point, the earlier fluidity of motion is gone, and although his facial features are still slack, the only thing that moves in the scene are his lips, as he says, “What do you mean, the king is not coming?”

0:11: “What do you mean, the king is not coming?” Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

Armitage has a capacity — not one he uses all that often, admittedly, and relatively rarely even in this role, where it’s called upon a lot — to open his eyes in a way that make him look absent or not completely with the program, and we see mood, shaded, here, along with the open mouth, another gesture he uses very effectively to indicate a surprise combined with a kind of unsavviness, so that although it has seemed obvious to the viewer that the “king’s arrival” storyline must be a ruse, not least because the show does so little to make it credible on its own terms, we still believe that Guy has believed it.

But this initial step into surprise doesn’t last long. At 0:16, as the Sheriff informs Guy that the “king” who will visit Nottingham is an imposter, we see awareness wash across his face. It’s one of Armitage’s gifts that he can make complex emotions both blend into each other and yet perceptibly distinct. He helps himself out by signaling the transitions in the mood by blinking — and in such a dark room, this motion is highly noticeable, indeed necessary, for his work. We see three different but unique moments here in his reaction:

0:16 — Attention. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

0:18 — Contemplation. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

0:10 –Tension — and the edge of frustration or humiliation. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

By 0:22, however, as the Sheriff begins to inform him of how illogical it would be for Richard to stop in Nottingham on his way home, the tension signaled at 0:19 has become a sort of anxious movement. At the very beginning of this shot, we see Guy moving his hand away from his face (hand-to-face is a classic distress move in Armitage’s repertoire of canonical gestures):

0:22 — Distress. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

0:22 — Moving hand to emphasize the frantic thought response to distress. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

0:22: Opens mouth to breathe out, but turning away to hide distress. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

0:22: Extent of turn away to hide emotion is complete, shifting to subconscious evaluation of fight or flight response. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

By 0:23, his second of reaction (really three distinct emotional transitions, again) is over and he’s decided to plant his foot and turn back toward the Sheriff:

0:23: At furthest turn away from the camera, Guy plants his foot and prepares to respond. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

This self-steadying thing with the foot is another thing we see Armitage do fairly often just before he plans to move onto the offensive (both Lucas North and Mr. Thornton resort to this technique frequently), and when he turns his face back, what we expect to see is a strong emotion. We’re not disappointed — but it’s not out and out anger. First, we get something that looks like the snake might look just before he prepares to strike — but again with the mouth open, which undercuts the intensity:

0:24 — weariness or sadness? Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

0:24 — Breath out, mouth open — self preparation. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

0:25 — Now resentment, eyes looking up from under the brow. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

0:26 — and finally we get there: anger, or potential danger. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

We expect in this sequence that Guy is potentially tense enough to simply be composing his features before responding. The camera leads us to expect something from the growing tension because all the time that we are hearing Sheriff’s explanation, the camera remains focused on Guy.

But the response at 0:26 moves the tension away from anger, which is interesting, because the Sheriff has just used his condescending “a clue: no!” line on Guy, which is a clear instance of at attempt at humiliation. Instead, Guy seems to be willing still to play along, complying with the rules if something remains to be gained, and so Armitage restrains Guy by pushing his facial gestures into the realm of menace with the terse question: “Why?”

Still at 0:26, but now moving into menace. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

The intonation here is interesting, precisely because it doesn’t end with an up tone, as if Guy is genuinely curious or expects to get unanticipated information. This “why?” is clearly one of anger, not designed to give the Sheriff any wiggle room in his reply. And at the end of the question, Armitage does that subtle chin move:

0:27 — First,  closing his mouth to indicate the end of his openness. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

still 0:27 — Now, moving his chin left and up with the direct gaze to make his anger and his potential power or threat palpable. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

Guy’s feet are planted, and his chin says, “I believe that I have the right to expect more from you as a conspirator.”

But despite his inner anger and resentment, and his tensing and relaxation of his body and his lungs in preparation, Guy still doesn’t quite have the stance together to challenge the Sheriff effectively. This would be the point in the scene at which the previous body language signals he should be ready to fight. But Guy doesn’t manage that — instead, actually listening to the Sheriff’s explanation, which concerns the disloyalty of their “friends.”

At 0:30 — here he’s still thinking in response to the Sheriff’s question about possible hidden enemies, although he’s certainly troubled, which he indicates with a noticeable blink that says — look at my eyes! Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

but at the back half of 0:30, he’s turning away again and is not going to confront as he might wish to. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

It’s interesting to contemplate the rationale for the turn away here, because the Sheriff has turned to talking about plotters among the locals and the disloyalty of friends who are like rats. Insofar as we know how the scene ends and what question Guy will ask to end it, we might wonder if he’s here contemplating the disparate nets of loyalty in which he is going to find himself after his marriage — to his own aims and desires, to those of his patron, the Sheriff, and to those of his prospective wife and her family. His mouth is open here, again, indicating both self-control breathing and emotion. Guy clearly does not want to contemplate these problems too fully, because …

… by 0:31 he’s turned even further away from the Sheriff (and the camera) than before. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

This turn, which sets him with his back to his conversation partner and the audience, frees Armitage to make clearer Guy’s tension, as he moves around again, restlessly — and indeed, the Sheriff articulates precisely what he must suspect is on Guy’s mind: the problem of Marian’s father’s loyalty, which the Sheriff then spins out.

He seems to take some decisions as he’s turned away, however, because at 0:35, Guy turns back toward the Sheriff, and his level of attention seems significantly lowered, as if he’s no longer granting credibility to the Sheriff’s speculations. It’s not quite a sulk, but his mouth is initially closed, indicating judgment …

… and at 0:36 — a certain amount of disdain. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

But Guy is still nervous, still not decided on his response — and Armitage’s own nervous habit comes tellingly to the fore in Guy’s features here, as at 0:36,

Guy licks his lips, amplifying his mood of growing unease. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

As Guy prepares to reply, at 0:44, his face is turned away, but his tone says everything — “I don’t know,” as the sullen response to a rhetorical question (how many are disloyal?) whose answer he anticipates the Sheriff is planning to give him.”You tell me,” he seems to say, but also, “Why are we even asking this question?” And while Guy keeps his temper, and stems his nervousness, his emotional stance is suddenly much clearer from his tone.

at 0:45 — this attitude then emerges just for a split second in a clear sneer, the unguarded expression of contempt. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

And as the Sheriff goes on to explain that none of them know how the king actually looks, we finally see Guy’s impatience with the Sheriff’s ruse come out, as well, in his eyes:

0:47 — anger in his eyes, finally — his eyes widen slightly in apparent flare. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

Guy seems to concede the necessity of the plot at this point — or at least that he has no way of interfering — or even that the moment in the conversation for a more vehement response has passed — but the deeper betrayal is still with him, and so at 0:54 we begin to see his feelings of betrayal and frustration, fed by his previous feeling that the Sheriff was giving him more responsibility — but now he sees that he’s not only been shut out, but, as we’ll see shortly, has been made to play the fool. The question, at 0:54, “But why didn’t you tell me?” has a plaintive cast despite its deep, dark articulation.

0:54 — we see an earnest, almost pained desire for a real answer, here, signaled not least by the upward extension and protrusion of the jaw. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

And then, another source of anger comes forth at 1:02, in response to the Sheriff’s statement that Guy should be happy because he will get to marry Marian. It’s not clear exactly where Guy’s anger comes from — from being outmaneuvered? From his realization that his marriage will now begin with a lie, as he says? The tension in his jaw doesn’t make the answer to this question entirely career, but the clear expression of contempt that emerges signals that whatever it is, it remains the thing about which he is the angriest. The rising pitch of Armitage’s voice is also a clue, here.

Emotions through which Guy’s (Richard Armitage) face moves as he expresses his reaction to the lie he did not utter that will nonetheless facilitate and contaminate his wedding. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

This is a really moving moment — because we see here a clue that Guy has a conscience of some kind, that he’s clearly troubled (even if in the next scene after this he will lie to Marian about yet something else). He could be troubled because this lie will complicate his life — or he could be troubled because he knows that his planned marital relationship with Marian will be difficult enough without this problem, which will eventually reveal itself, added to the mix. And when the Sheriff finally rubs it in, by asking, facetiously, “how could you possibly live with yourself?” Guy looks down, blinks, and breathes out.  At 1:09 his shame is complete and by 1:10 we’re seeing the blink of despair.

Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

The depth and intensity with which Armitage maps out shame is expressed here leaves the audience open to a number of readings, only the most optimistic of which is that Guy is ashamed that his marriage will be based on a lie. Given the way the scene then continues, we have to consider some of the other options: that the ducking of the head signals acceptance — or even that Guy’s shame consists not in this particular lie, but in a life lived in such a way, with such serious crimes that it is entirely fair for the Sheriff to laugh at the possibility that he would express moral scruples about such a minor matter. Given that Guy will later concede to Thornton, the steward at Locksley, that he has committed heinous crimes, this moment of shame and consciousness of shame thus becomes a vital stepping stone to the audience’s willingness to believe, slightly later in the narrative, that Guy does wish some kind of reconciliation or atonement through a pure union with Marian.

But then — and this is a great characterization move, again, right out of that blink of despair, as Armitage twists his head, we see Gisborne the pragmatist, the endurer, reemerge, to ask one last question — “What if Edward is one of them?”

at 1:12: the realist Gisborne, the Guy who copes. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

and gets the deafening answer — in which Allen, as the powerful engine of the scene and the powerful partner in the relationship, is given all the rage that Guy feels incapable of expressing: “Then I’ll hang him!”

One wonders if this explosion comes precisely from the fact that Guy is so — relatively speaking — silent and obedient, expressing little dissent — as if the Sheriff is torn between his need to subordinate Guy and his wish to provoke him into more authority, political acumen, deceit. The repeated presentation of the open mouth — frequently a feminine response to distress or indication of willingness to yield — also underlines the apparent incapacity Guy feels to response, and this gesture is contrasted with Guy’s ostentatious attempts to control his own breathing throughout the scene. (I should mention that watching this scene repeatedly convinced me to look more closely in future at the role that timing of breathing plays in Armitage’s acting.) And in turn Guy, who realizes that every time in the scene that he had a chance to express his own rage, he backed off, is left only with the concomitant feelings that come from not being able to express or control one’s own fate adequately: martyrdom, exhaustion, despair, humiliation.

Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

When Guy closes his mouth this last time, it is not in judgment or decision — but in bitter acceptance.

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We can thus see without too much difficulty that the emotions in this deceptively simple scene are myriad and complex, and that the reactions characterize not only Guy, but also the Sheriff. The humiliation dynamic was central to their relationship, and Armitage was well aware of this, as in a comment on the scenes in the series that were hardest to play, where he spoke of the struggle between Guy’s self-concept and his treatment at the hands of the Sheriff:

Armitage masters this scene primarily by reacting — and by allowing Allen to bounce the Sheriff’s rage off Guy’s alternate pliancy and restlessness, two moods that never reach the level of actual resistance. We thus see Guy as not only the weak subordinate, but in the light of his subordination we glimpse the tension between the various Guys of Gisborne who have inhabited series 1: the dispossessed knight who wishes to establish his position and has decided that following the Sheriff is the way to do that; the ambitious man whose political maneuvering skills are sometimes lacking and have to be substituted for with ruthlessness; the idealist who might truly love Marian and wish that she could love him back without the taint of a lie on his conscience; and the opportunist who will pull what he can from a situation no matter how badly he’s suffering.

And Servetus the writer wonders — how much artistry must be involved in achieving flow in portraying a scene in which one’s character is so obviously not achieving it — in playing a man so obviously stymied in every direction, by his lack of independent power, by the burden of his past, by the apparent unattainability of his wishes, by his inability or lack of sufficient self-awareness to change his own behavior, by the lack of correspondence between what he sees as his value and the establishment of that value in terms the world considers important? For these are all grounds upon which I identify severely with the landless Gisborne.

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[I hope no one has transmission problems with the source of the vid. My usual vid host — you know who you are — has now more or less completely blocked new uploads of HD Robin Hood clips, even extremely short ones. One reason there are so many caps in this post is my concern that transmission problems would prevent you from following what I was seeing.]

~ by Servetus on October 17, 2012.

14 Responses to “Armitage reacting”

  1. Thank you for a delectable morning, Servetus. 🙂

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  2. A very stimulating analysis. Loved it!

    Richard Armitage portrays humliated Sir Guy so well, that it is interesting to hear RA say that it was difficult for him to do those scenes.

    Might one surmise that RA had developed an empathy for his character since RA was developing a growing humanity in Guy that was lacking in the script through RA’s adroit acting choices? Or , did RA take Sir Guy’s being humliated to heart himself?

    It must have been punishing to portray for three years the also ran, the never chosen, the failure (in Vasey’s eyes), and the man not noble enough in Marian’s eyes. But then, RA portrayed Guy’s disappointment and despair so deliciously.

    All in all, Sir Guy had no agency of his own with which to further his goals and acquire the accoutrements of being an aristocrat–and a “landless” gentry one at that as you mentioned.

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    • Maybe one reason they turned out so well is that they were hard — so he was working harder to be successful 🙂

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  3. I love this detailed analysis of the detailed acting of RA. He is a joy to watch because of the emotional complexity he portrays. Thanks.

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  4. It is this type of subtlety in his acting (particularly in his facial expressions) which makes me wonder how he can sucessfully adjust his style for live theater. His voice and body movements clearly would translate well in a stage production but would the minute details of his facial expressions be lost? Would I be disappointed watching him in a theatrical production because the small details which require intimate observation (which you articulate so well) would not be apparent? Or would he bring something different to his stage performance that he doesn’t use on screen that would create an entirely new experience? And would that experience be as satisfying as watching his screen work?

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    • He said something (I think maybe in the Sparkhouse publicity pack?) about how for TV you take layers off and for theater you put them on. So I’m sure he’d adapt himself to the medium he was working in. Would it be as good? I don’t have any way of knowing — but I do know the more experience one brings to anything, the better one’s execution. I feel that he’s a markedly better actor now than he was in N&S, even if the parts have been less satisfying to some.

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  5. […] https://meandrichard.wordpress.com/2012/10/17/armitage-reacting/ […]

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  6. I love this post — it’s a great step-by-step breakdown of why acting is reacting. Ahhh…RA, you make us proud!

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  7. […] was watching a lot of Robin Hood in the fall, and you may remember this post in which I talk about the multiplicity of reactions that Armitage brings to the table when the […]

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  8. Thank you for that amazing analysis. Truly. It’s… I don’t know, a relief? to know that someone else sees these things and I’m not simply imposing my own manufactured perception of complexity on this performance.

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    • Thanks for the kind words. No, you’re not making it up. I do think I’m well disposed toward what he does, relatively speaking, but this is an exceptionally complex performance. It’s what I would have spent more writing about in the fall if I hadn’t been overtaken by, well, life + The Hobbit. Glad to know these posts are appreciated, though — makes me want to write more of them.

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